Bay Area startup Mantle has developed a genius method for immediately impacting the manufacturing industry. Rather than 3D print millions of parts, the company’s technology 3D prints the tooling that then makes millions of parts. At the Medical Device & Manufacturing West conference taking place in Anaheim, California, Mantle is showcasing two new customers who have adopted its metal 3D printing process to reduce time and labor for their injection molding operations.
Wisconsin-based Nicolet Plastics is using Mantle’s technology to 3D print steel tooling as a part of its full-service plastic injection molding. Among Nicolet’s customers is Gamber-Johnson, for whom the firm produced molded samples in record time. By 3D printing three inserts that were 95 percent complete with only minor finishing required, the company was able to cut toolmaking time from 180 to just 12.5 hours. In turn, Nicolet was able to deliver its samples in two weeks, down from six.
“We printed up the inserts…(and) did a little bit of final fitting here and there, and we were able to get it in the press and start molding parts relatively quickly. We only had about 10 hours worth of secondary operations and final fitting we had to do. Our tool maker was…a little bit pessimistic, but when I came in that Friday to ask how everything went, he was almost jumping up and down for joy,” said Eric Derner, of Nicolet Plastics.
Another full-service plastic injection molder, Westec Plastics Corporation, is relying on the technology to increase its tooling capacity without the need to take on toolmakers, who are both difficult to find and costly to employ. By 3D printing 75-95 percent complete inserts made from H13 tool steel, the company’s existing toolmaking staff can focus on more important tasks, like tool repair and maintenance. Moreover, Westec is said to have reduced tooling costs by half, as active operations hours for producing the inserts was cut from 40 hours to 10.
“Tooling is the base of our company. Without quality tooling, we can’t produce quality parts , but it’s getting harder and harder to find quality tool makers. Using Mantle’s technology, we can complete up to 70 percent of the job, and have our toolmakers handle the specialized steps that only a human can do. We need to take advantage of this new technology. With Mantle, we can provide our customers a service they can’t get anywhere else,” said Tammy Barras, President, Westec Plastics Corporation.
Those at the MD&M West event can see the case studies at Mantle’s booth, #3995. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that you’ll see some yourself soon, just by going to the grocery store. For instance, one major, but unnamed deodorant manufacturer relied on molds made with Mantle to mass produce the twisting component of a deodorant stick. Though Mantle may be comparatively new, it is already impacting general industry in ways that have taken established companies decades to accomplish.
3D printing may not be the best fit for all injection molders; however, it does seem like an ideal tool for any that perform in-house toolmaking. Ethan Rejto, Director of Marketing for Mantle, told 3DPrint.com that AM isn’t necessarily suitable for injection molders who buy their tools from domestic or overseas suppliers, since tools require a few hours of touch up after printing. Those that buy their tools but perform tool repair in-house may look to bring toolmaking on-site and, therefore, could be a good fit for Mantle.
“Molders that have full in-house toolmaking capabilities (i.e., the ability to build full injection mold tools) are a really good fit for Mantle. Most still do some outsourcing, but see increasing their in-house tool making capacity as a strategic advantage, so are trying to bring more of their toolmaking in house. However, they simply can’t hire toolmakers to do it. That’s when they adopt Mantle,” Rejto said.
Though these firms could turn to legacy metal 3D printing technologies, like laser powder bed fusion (PBF), to produce molds, or even some polymer technologies, Mantle’s go-to-market is focused on toolmaking. The price of its equipment is significantly lower than high-end PBF machines used by aerospace companies and not nearly as complex. By targeting this segment, Mantle is attempting to profit off of a relatively neglected area of manufacturing that is essential to post-industrial society and worth somewhere in the range of $45 billion.
As a new startup, Mantle was not covered in the “Market Opportunities for Additive Manufacturing in the General Industry and Tooling Sector 2020-2029” report from SmarTech Analysis. However, there’s no doubt that it will play an increasingly large role in the AM for general industry and tooling market, estimated to be worth $5.48 billion in total revenue by 2029.